How the National Guard can help counter Chinese influence
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan inflicted widespread physical devastation in the Caribbean. In the aftermath of the storm, China quietly began to establish a foothold in the region, making offers that some countries could not refuse. These deals involved sums of money that might have been inconsequential to the Chinese government, but were a game-changer for struggling Caribbean communities. More importantly, this practice began to tip the political balance in favor of China, as Caribbean nations slowly began to make political concessions to Beijing.
Now that the US military is moving away from two decades of conflict in the Middle East, US policymakers and military leaders are looking for ways to compete effectively with China in an era of renewed great power competition. To compete effectively, the United States needs a program for achieving strategic impact that is also agile, flexible, and capable of global reach.
Fortunately, there is already a scalable, tailored program within the National Guard that can have an immediate competitive impact: the State Partnership Program (SPP). The PSP is a proven program that can enhance U.S. influence around the world through expanded military partnerships. Although in need of a rebrand from its post-Cold War roots, the PPS has the potential to act as an irregular warfare tool capable of countering Chinese influence in the Caribbean and the world.
The United States needs strategic tools to regain influence close to home
China’s global influence manifests itself in many forms, but the most pervasive seems to be its economic influence. Through programs like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has become part of the fabric of local infrastructure initiatives in smaller countries around the world. This is also true in the Caribbean, with significant Chinese investments in countries like Jamaica, the Bahamas and Guyana. And China is beginning to see the strategic fallout, as countries like Grenada are driven to sever their political and economic ties with Taiwan.
This manifestation of Chinese influence has not gone unnoticed by American decision-makers. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) identifies that China uses this predatory form of economics, while the NDS’s Irregular Warfare Annex provides a framework for understanding these tactics as part of China’s attempts to obtain legitimacy and influence over local populations. As the NDS calls for a “Joint Rapid Innovation Force” to counter Chinese efforts and restore a favorable balance of power, U.S. policymakers must ask themselves which current authorities can enable the changes needed to successfully compete in a game of power. influence with America’s main strategic competitor.
Enter the SPP. Originally, the PSP focused on helping countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain after the end of the Cold War. Although it started with the former Soviet bloc countries, it later spread to ninety-three countries around the world. The program aims to support U.S. security cooperation objectives and geographic combatant commands by developing lasting relationships with partner nations and conducting activities to build capabilities, improve interoperability, and improving U.S. access and influence while increasing the ability of U.S. and partner forces to meet emerging challenges.
For example, within existing U.S. authorities and approved partnerships, the Puerto Rico National Guard could be in the Dominican Republic tomorrow to counter the Chinese presence through cooperative security activities. Similarly, the District of Columbia National Guard could deploy to Jamaica to counter Chinese influence in the Caribbean nation, and more can be done in the region. Indeed, out of the fifteen independent countries in the Caribbean, only eight have individualized SPP agreements. An additional problem is that only six states and two territories cover the entire region – Florida being overburdened to cover eight different nations (in addition to Guyana, the Florida National Guard is responsible – along with that of the US Virgin Islands – for relations with Eastern Caribbean bloc of seven nations known as the Regional Security System). To achieve the goals of the NDS, the United States must strengthen and intensify programs capable of identifying gaps in the American presence and expanding American influence. The PSP is a program designed to do just that.
The PPS encompasses cooperative activities authorized by federal law, supported by funds appropriated to the Department of Defense for such purposes, between National Guard personnel of a U.S. state or territory and a partner nation. Applicable federal law, 10 U.S. Code § 341, permits State and Territory National Guard units to partner with foreign security forces or government organizations whose primary functions include disaster response. or emergency. Such partnerships can work across a wide range of activities and with remarkable longevity, as illustrated by the ongoing partnership between the Louisiana National Guard and the Belize Defense Force. Louisiana’s current Adjutant General, Brigadier General D. Keith Waddell, cultivated that relationship, which he helped establish more than two decades ago while building schools in Belize as a young engineer. Earlier this year, the District of Columbia National Guard hosted a visit by top military officials from Burkina Faso to increase collaboration on “mutual security objectives.” And as a pandemic swept the world, the Alabama National Guard hosted a delegation of civilian and military medical specialists and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear personnel from Romania to discuss best practices in responding to COVID-19. .
Once renamed, the program could expand further, helping to build personal relationships and increase US influence in the Caribbean, but political hurdles remain.
What are the barriers to rebranding SPP for speed and efficiency?
The Department of Defense policy governing the program, DoD Instruction 5111.20 (October 2016), assigns oversight authority to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, with administration by the National Guard Bureau , the supply of troops by State and Territory National Guards, and the execution by geographicalcombatant commands. This overcrowded stakeholder group, along with the lack of a comprehensive monitoring framework for key goals and metrics, poses critical challenges to program effectiveness, as a US Government Accountability Office report found. in 2012. In addition, existing Department of Defense guidelines leave states little latitude. exercise initiative – the only entities able to recommend new SPP partnerships are the Geographic Combatant Commands, which are required by federal policy to submit annual lists of any proposed new state partnerships in their respective areas of responsibility to the Office of the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff.
This political structure is out of step with the rapid pace of strategic competition. Greater decentralization could free up the initiative of states seeking to strengthen existing partnerships and forge new ones. Thus, the key issue is that current legal authorities and government policies prevent National Guard units from exercising initiative in the program. As an O-4 Judge Advocate in Alabama, there are several hurdles for me even to be involved in traditional post-Cold War engagements with our Romanian partners, as I have seen with numerous requests for participation. Demonstrating initiative by completing an Individualized Partnership Application with Barbados or requesting to work within an existing partnership with a BRI participating country would be nearly impossible to achieve bureaucratically.
Enabling Initiative to Jump Start Influence in the Caribbean
Just as China exploited opportunities to increase its influence in the U.S. backyard in 2004, the National Guard must also seize the opportunities that arise by making better use of the SPP as a strategic tool in the competition. between great powers. Now is the time for US national security leaders to re-examine existing policy in the face of near-peer threats, and a helpful step would be to expedite the decision-making process of the PPS. The National Guard has a unique opportunity to accelerate change in the area of irregular warfare competition and requires only relatively minor changes from PPS authorities to do so.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy should first reorganize command and control of the program, assigning greater authority to the leadership of the state’s National Guard. This would allow SPP program recommendations to flow directly from state National Guard units in the field to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in coordination with geographic combatant commands, for faster approval. This overhaul will streamline the program’s current command and control structure, eliminating stakeholder coordination issues highlighted by the Government Accountability Office. Delegating greater authority to state National Guard leadership would allow National Guard personnel to better match capabilities within their own units with new or existing partner nations.
Although the PSP is not widely known, its potential strategic impact is significant. The National Guard has the ability, but not enough authority, to exercise initiative through the SPP. National Guard leaders should therefore be given greater latitude to accomplish more with the program. The simple changes discussed above will allow the National Guard to wield a powerful strategic tool capable of restoring American influence in the Caribbean and around the world.
Clay Fuller is an experienced federal, military, and local prosecutor in Appalachia. He was an active duty Air Force officer from 2010 to 2014 and currently serves in the Alabama Air National Guard. From 2018 to 2019, he was a White House member assigned to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
Image credit: SPC. NW Huerta, US Army